Years ago I opened an art shop, a small enterprise situated in an old house (fixed up) in an old neighborhood (run down) close to the business district of town. It was an area that had been trying to go commercial for years but hadn't quite got up enough steam to make a good job of it. Most of the fragile businesses were like mine, run on a shoestring, needing expensive advertising to entice the public to detour onto the premises.
It took no publicity to lure Mrs. Flum to the shop, only proximity. She lived next door, and within a week of the so-called grand opening, she popped her head through the door and inched into the deserted showroom. She had not come to buy anything, but she must have liked what she saw, and what Thadie Flum liked, she made her own. Soon, quite soon, she began to use the shop as an informal clubroom for her frequent coffee breaks.
Thadie Flum had worked in food service all her adult life, first in the public school system, then later at the county hospital. Recently retired, for several years a widow, she found time heavy on her hands. When she was getting acquainted with the shop, she seemed timid and almost reverent as if exploring the vast reaches of a foreign cathedral. She moved around uneasily, examining but not touching the merchandise and saying little. She was obviously unsure of herself in this new and strange environment, ignorant of art works and even indigenous crafts. I welcomed her eagerly, however, as a friendly presence, bringing life to my undiscovered business, and she quickly grew more confident.
I found myself becoming increasingly fond of her. She was direct and open, a rather lonely woman who had devoted herself to her work, with no children or grandchildren to fill her life, and now not even a job to occupy her time. Her visits quickly became a daily routine even after the shop began to draw clientele. She usually pulled up one of the high wooden stools I kept around the counter and would sip her coffee from that perch, eyeing each browsing customer like a protective gorgon.
But Thadie Flum didn't content herself with merely watching; as time went on, she became more sure of her role, expressing definite ideas about the merchandise, where and how it should be displayed, and she didn't mind telling me. She had a crisp way of speaking, authoritative. It reminded me of a Texan's drawl with the lower jaw barely moving, the words angled and sharp as bits of barbed wire that she spat out between clenched teeth.
"Get them place mats spread out so's folks can see 'em. They look like a stack of newspapers stuck up there on the shelf thataway!"
I had designed a rustic interior to better set off the hand-made quality of the goods, with raw beams, barn siding, and even cleanly cut logs for display tables. Mrs. Flum did not approve.
"I don't know why you want them dirty logs a-settin' around with the bark flayin' off and right out in the middle of the room in people's way. I say get them logs outa here!"
I knew my concept was right, but somehow Mrs. Flum prevailed. I called in a carpenter and had special display tables constructed.
Mrs. Flum gave freely of her opinions to customers on their purchases, too. "That picture's kindly modrun-like. You got modrun furniture, chrome and such? No? I think it looks cold--brrr! But to each his own, I always say."
Then she began answering the phone if I was in the back room. She was garrulous in person, but the telephone dried her up; she answered inquiries about shop hours or merchandise in monosyllables and hung up abruptly. I realized she saw herself as my lieutenant or, better, master sergeant to my lieutenant. Motivated by her loyalty to me and to what she considered my interests, she thought of the callers as invaders and could hardly wait to get rid of them, let alone be civil. "She can't be disturbed unless it's ver-ry important," I overheard her informing a caller.
"I don't mind, Mrs. Flum," I assured her later. "It's good business to be accommodating on the phone, too."
She reluctantly allowed that and would then call me to the phone after announcing to the caller with exaggerated politeness, "She'll be right pleased to talk to you."
Bit by bit, inch by inch, Mrs. Flum took over the shop as manager. I ordered her a cotton smock like the one I wore, so customers would know she actually worked there, and began to pay her a modest wage. Regular customers came to depend on her forthrightness in judging quality. I did, too, and within six months I had changed several lines which weren't up to snuff, according to Mrs. Flum's critical appraisal. Newcomers may have swallowed hard when first confronted by her, but soon finding her horny exterior harmless, they visibly relaxed and enjoyed her.
Mrs. Flum loved children and always carried a supply of hard candy in her pocket to give them with the whispered admonition, "Don't tell Mama about this!" When she discovered we stocked no wares specifically for children she became obsessed, pouring over merchandise catalogues during her free moments.
"Here's something," she said, pointing to coloring books with pictures of masterworks. "This is down your alley, just like them prints you sell."
"Oh, I don't know. I don't really approve of coloring books. I think children should draw their own pictures."
"What!" she exploded. "Everybody likes color books! I did myself. Why, them kiddies'll snap these up like a chicken on a worm."
Need I say that they were so popular we could hardly keep enough in stock? Mrs. Flum had the good grace to refrain from saying she told me so.
Thadie Flum wasn't so much hired as absorbed, much like the first snowfall which looks so out of place is soon taken for granted until it finally disappears into the ground. Of course, she never became so innocuous that she blended into the background completely. She continued to exasperate me occasionally, and I would have to gently reprove her misplaced enthusiasm or too chilling disapproval as not the best sales technique. But she remained in the shop as long as I owned it. When I sold it as a going concern three years later, I asked Mrs. Flum what she would do. The new owners told me they didn't want any help, couldn't afford it, and if they got anyone, he or she would be of their own choosing.
I drove by the old place a couple of months after the new owners had moved in. Crossing the lawn which separated the two houses, Mrs. Flum was heading for the door of the shop. I honked and waved, and she waved back, seeming to give me a wink. I needn't have worried about her.
I still think of Mrs. Flum from time to time. I know that the arts shop served her in some important way, but I also know that Thadie Flum helped me, too. From her, I learned that good taste is not necessarily good sense, that incongruity is refreshing, and that the human spirit which is simple and strong, untroubled by fashionable doubts, may be the finest of all.